“Bix Lives,” read the graffiti after cornetist Bix Beiderbecke died in 1931. “Bird Lives,” began appearing on walls in New York within days of Charlie Parker’s death in 1955. Neither Beiderbecke nor Parker, however, inspired an establishment of religion. So far, the only jazz musician to be declared a saint is John Coltrane. In Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers, the chapter on Coltrane included this:
For a complex variety of reasons, few of them musical, a legendary John Coltrane was created in the years immediately after his death in 1967. The legend persists, and it exists alongside the music as if on a separate plane. Coltrane the legend is a divinely inspired mystic who ultimately transcended music to deliver to the world a spiritual message of love and salvation. The legend comes complete with an appropriately mystical name for Coltrane, Ohnedaruth, evoking the mists, incense and chants of some great Zen beyond, from which Trane is sending back vibrations.
I have been in the pads of youngsters who have constructed little shrines not unlike those of Japanese or Italian working class homes. But the centerpiece is not a lithograph of Buddha or Jesus. It is a print of the cover photograph from Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme. In the late sixties and early seventies, the time of flower children, Haight-Ashbury, Vietnam, and burgeoning drug use, Coltrane became a convenient object of the search for heroes. And his early death seemed to qualify him, among those in need of martyrs, for the company of Dr. King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy.
One of the manifestations of the zeal surrounding Coltrane’s memory was the creation in San Francisco, four years after his death, of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. It exists thirty-five years later. Evelyn Nieves of The Washington Post visited the church and reports that its founder and members are serious and dedicated in their adoration of Coltrane.
Last Sunday’s service was typical: lots of music and listening. “The first part of our service is quiet meditation,” said Johnson, as a boombox on the floor played John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard.
The house-band members took their places in front of a seven-foot-tall Byzantine-style painting of Coltrane holding a saxophone with flames coming from it. Bishop Franzo King, in white robes with a fuchsia skullcap and cummerbund, took a seat in front of a conga drum, his soprano sax in hand.
To read the whole report, go here.